Haleek Maul’s determination to shout out his Barbadian roots reaches far beyond a crypto context; it’s a call to reparations and a deep reverence for the Caribbean nation and greater archipelago of states that have almost always been sidelined financially, culturally, and infrastructurally.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Barbados, Maul’s trajectory from rapper and producer—with records like 2012’s “Oxyconteen”, 2015’s “Prince Midas”, and “In Permanence” from 2018—to disillusioned legacy-label solo artist, hungry for an alternative channel through which to express himself, is a blueprint that many other artists are referencing in the global caravan to Web3.
Highly active in the space, Maul’s philanthropic efforts, too, are a welcome addition to his ever-expanding curriculum vitae. HOLDERSLAND, which emerged around two years ago, is a self-avowed “multidisciplinary institution…using modern technologies to make artifacts for the new Caribbean”. Maul’s involvement in the initiative demonstrates his commitment to that geography which has been the springboard for countless genres like dub and reggae, and gifted the world Rihanna. And still, the area is highly shelved aside; just last year, Spotify finally became available, in a move that highlights big business’ dismissal of the region.
“This is a revolution we could be building together,” says Maul, on countless number of people still to-be onboarded. “When are we going to get that same level of care when it comes to technological advancements that come into this world?” ZORA’s own Michail Stangl caught up with the creator, builder, and entrepreneur.
Michail Stangl (ZORA): Share how you feel right now, because it must be a really exciting time.
Haleek Maul: Hi. I am Haleek Maul. I'm a professional magician, artist, and person who makes stuff.
MS: How long have you been a person that was making stuff?
HM: I've been a person that made stuff since I was eight and nine, bro. I used to do game design and books. I was super obsessed with Pokémon and RPGs, and I would do maps of games with characters and their stats. My grandmother used to tell me that all the drawings were ugly, but, dude, my grandmother is so harsh, but she's such a beautiful person at the same time. ‘What are these ugly things that you're drawing?’ And she would always be rating them. I was like, ‘Damn, why are you like this?’ But for some reason, that just made me want to go harder. I would say my first love was computers—downloading and pirating games, downloading emulators and ROMs. So games, fairytale worlds, and storytelling have always been a big part of my whole thing. And then, coming into music, which is my second love, which became my first love for a long time, I don't know. They switched places. I got into music because there was a girl in school that I really liked, and I wrote her a poem.
I was 11 years old, and I read it in front of the whole class, because everyone was supposed to present. But I thought I was being super suave, you know what I mean? I think it started: ‘As I look across from my lonely desk…’ or some s*** like that. It was hilarious. I made her laugh for sure; she's still my friend to this day. Then I realized I can affect people with the way I put together words. My curiosity with music followed, and then visual art came a little bit after that, because I needed cover art for my songs…now I am doing weird stuff but with NFTs, and I think that that's really cool. The way that crypto and blockchain have manifested has allowed me to be the fullest version of myself where all of those things can come together.
MS: Right before you dove into Web3 and NFTs, you released an album. Obviously, it was not your debut, even though it was kind of presented as such. This album was supposed to be a trilogy. Have your plans changed since then? How did you approach your artistic career before Web3 came into the picture, and how do you do that now?
HM: I don't want to s*** on the label, but the label really was a big reason why I cut the trilogy. That project was dedicated to my grandfather, and I feel like I did not get to do all the things I wanted. If you look and see, there's not a single music video from that project, and I have a song with Mick Jenkins that has mad views. It was unfortunate, but I don't look at it like it was a bad album, it just wasn't what I wanted…and it just sucks that my grandfather's name was attached to it, but it is what it is. Then also with Web3 coming along, it totally opened up a whole different part of my brain, because it's a story, right? There's a linear story from “Prince Midas” to now, it's just the way that it's being told has been changed a bit because of the way that my life has gone; the technology enables me to make it more of what I wanted.
MS: The nature of the NFT medium, it's so multimedia-heavy and not just rooted in one media experience; there's so many angles that can now be combined. Do you think that it comes closer to who you are as an artist and how you express yourself?
HM: For sure. I'm glad to have this new space where people really do appreciate wild ideas and exciting formats for art. Even my first NFT that sold on Zora was a song called HOME. And HOME...there's no chorus, you know what I'm saying? The song starts off with mad noise, there's noise throughout the record. The way that it progresses is very interesting: I start singing halfway through and there's a spoken-word piece at the end. I couldn't have done that beforehand; or I could have, but it would've been odd.
MS: It's very fascinating to observe how the platforms we use to consume certain media, changes the media. For example, Spotify introduced a loudness war [where] everything had to be mastered at the maximum until the wave file looks a solid square, and [they] also completely changed the song structures: the hook needs to come in within the first three seconds of the song, or else it doesn't get played. It sounds like you reclaimed artistic space through that. Do you think that your audience in Web3 approaches your art differently than, let's say, the rap fans that were listening to your music before? Is it a more mature audience, one that is more attentive? Or is it one that is inexperienced, and way more open to experiments?
HM: It's a bit of everything. I think, definitely, this is challenging the way a lot of people look at things, and there are sides to everything, right? There is still a very mainstream aspect of Web3, that's still very much commercial, and their whole thing is remaking the old model in the context of Blockchain. Whereas a bunch of people that are already taking that opportunity to cut through all of the preconceptions of how things are supposed to look and how things are supposed to be run are just inventing all these insane concepts that work. I personally feel very strongly about the way these people have been responding to me, and it's making me want to do even wilder s***. The reception is good. The way that people are moving is indeed a very different type of consumer, if you will. Also, my music is different because I've always flirted with dancehall. I've had dancehall on my projects before. There was a song called “Dreamin” on [“Prince Midas”]—that was straight-up dancehall. And then, “LOVE” was a dancehall song I did with Dubbel Dutch. You know what I'm saying? I've always tried to bring my culture in, in a way that was acceptable to Americans or that world. But now, I'm able to go full tilt, and bring that to people in a way that I feel is most authentic to me and not feel worried about it.
MS: Do you still see room for the music industry, in a traditional sense, that you've been operating in over the last decade? Or do you think that there's no way back to get into these legacy systems? Do you see this right now as an evolution? An extension? Or as a complete break?
HM: All my music this whole year has been on-chain; I haven't put a single song out on Spotify, and I probably won't unless my fans really ask for it. I don't really see the reason to do that when everyone's just going to come this way anyway. All the big labels, everybody's going to come here. You got big artists on my radar, or I'm on big artists' radar because of what I'm doing here. I'm way more confident about my positioning here than I am in YouTube world—not because I don't think my art is good, or I don't think that I could survive in that environment—I just feel like it's not really meant for people to survive in. It's also a situation we were saying before: making things that are challenging to the listener and also ownership of my intellectual property in a way that I've never had before. But I do think that artists shouldn't overlook the aspects of the old system that support their business.
So, understanding publishing, mechanical royalties, trademarks, business structure—all these things are still very important, and you should not throw the whole baby out because of this new technology. You should be trying to maximize every aspect of your brand as possible. This is an opportunity for freedom from the old system, yes; but it's also an opportunity to excel on another level within that old system. And we got to figure that out, because for me, personally, I don't think I need to put music on Spotify, but I definitely wanted to get my music in movies.
MS: You’ve talked quite a lot in past interviews about the importance of being self-sufficient. So let's talk about HOLDERSLAND: is HOLDERSLAND an element of that? Or a different project altogether?
HM: Oh, of course. HOLDERSLAND was invented because I was f****** tired of being told ‘no’ all the time. I remember telling my label, ‘Yo, let's throw parties; Let's do more things to engage with the community that exists already for my music,’ and they were just like, ‘Yeah, Barbados isn't going to move the dial, I'm sorry.’ They just kept saying that over and over. I'm just like, ‘Bro, nah. This is the wave. Y'all just don't understand.’ So I started building HOLDERSLAND shortly after I got off the deal. After that I was just full tilt. How do we own the process? How do we make sure that everything is in-house? How do we make sure that the other artists that we're working with have those resources and those facilities to also work at a high level?
So far, right now, what you've been seeing is more so bringing in a bunch of talent and pulling them together to make my product, i.e., this last drop INNER, and then Urbit. But soon, you're going to start seeing us develop other artists, create space, do education, and that's going to be the turning point for us. Not only is it about securing the bag for myself, or my friends, or the direct people that I'm working with, but even kids that aren't necessarily directly involved in HOLDERSLAND or crypto. We just want to give them the education and have them see somebody coming up doing something alternative. I think kids seeing that is super important—even with Rihanna. I know [she] definitely changed the collective consciousness of a lot of Caribbean youth based just by existing and reaching the heights that she reached.
MS: When you talk about the production, in a traditional kind of music environment, that means studio, that means multimedia production. What is the toolset for a Web3-native production house that is essential, that you're building right now? Which are the new elements that one has to master that were not in the picture before? You started to teach yourself Solidity, right?
HM: Yep. You don't need to learn Solidity, but I would say it's a plus. Aside from the basics of whatever you need to make, whatever you're doing, this is not the attention economy. It is in some regards, maybe, but it's not driven by that solely. There's financial tools that exist that pull out millions of dollars in this space that are not widely promoted.
MS: So you mean with the attention economy, artists in the past would have had to produce huge amounts of content to build audiences to scale, and monetize a small fraction of that? Now, you have a high-quality engagement with smaller audiences. Is that what you hint at?
HM: Yeah, that's what I mean. For those that know, I don't know if I want Haleek Maul to be seen as luxury goods, but at the same time, it's kind of the same comparison, like fine leather goods or whatever the case may be. They probably have a way smaller market share, or a way smaller consumer base than Nike, for example, but they're probably able to pull down similar numbers. I honestly think music should be fine art. I think music should be seen and validated for the value that it provides people. Before I go off on a tangent, though, the toolset that is important right now is understanding DeFi, Solidity, smart-contract language, and how Ethereum, and all of the things that come after it, will build on top of that, as well as community building and realizing that these people are really your family.
You got to be active in the Discord. You got to be talking to these people. You got to be understanding them as people too. It’s kind of opposite to the narcissism or idolatry that we've pushed with Web2 and our Instagram culture. These people are ultimately connected to you by your art, and engaging with them is super important, because you never know where that's going to take you. [Those relationships] should never be extractive or transactional.
MS: Of course, you’ve spoken a lot about the creative and technological potential, but you've [also] mentioned the financial aspect, DeFi. Having a very intricate understanding of fairly complex financial tools comes easy for you. Most people don't know that you're actually an accountant by trade. Do you think that the subcultures that you're embedded in can really survive using these tools?
HM: It's ultimately up to the artists on how they choose to build their thing, because you can have different tiers for different sets of people: you can do one-on-ones and do editions; you could definitely freak your system, where you give away money, you give away stuff. The whole thing is to not let greed overpower your desire to communicate with the people that you want to the most. That's why with HOLDERSLAND, it's not token-gated right now, because I know there's a lot of kids in the Caribbean that can't actually access the crypto. Why would I create a situation where people have to buy in and then lock them out of the situation? Holdersland's main thing is education and getting everyone up to speed, because there's a lot of people that are going to get priced out of this, a lot of people that are left feeling inadequate or confused about their position in it all. There's a lot of people that, because of FOMO, feel bad about themselves.
So there's a way to engage, and you got to realize what aspects of this s*** you're willing to take a pay cut on. I'm willing to take the pay cut to get all the people that I'm trying to get through the gate. That is more important, long-term, for the sanctity of my soul, and also just the future of this planet. The Caribbean and Africa are always the last two; we're never the latest, but we're always the last to receive certain things. So you got to look at it like eCommerce, even with Spotify. [It] just became available in the Caribbean last year. That's why I often do callouts to other Caribbean artists or people in the space to come join us at HOLDERSLAND, because this is a revolution that we could be building together.
MS: This sounds like there's a political dimension to these tools, right? Obviously the reasons why the Caribbean has been receiving access to such technologies, not as the first, has less to do with the Caribbean ability to build upon these technologies, but rather the systemic flaws that provide access, and prioritize, Anglo-American or European markets over Caribbean markets. How do you see NFTs and Web3 as a force that reclaims this kind of political space?
HM: It allows us to trade value back and forth in a way that we never were able to do before. And obviously, the banking systems in these countries will try really hard to reduce the number of on-and-off ramp opportunities we have. If you're not thinking about the political implications of the work that we're doing right now, you're not even in the game.
MS: Do you have the feeling that the people building these technologies have an understanding regarding the political implications?
HM: No. I think most people that are building are building for people in the countries that they live in and the places that they've been. That's why I'm saying: African and West Indian people get left out all the time because we are not part of the wider system, but we’re literally the foundational members of the hip hop groups that made all the music, you know what I'm saying? We're the ones that Diplo’s sampling, the ones that Skrillex is sampling. OWSLA and Mad Decent owe us all checks, bro. When are we going to come to a conclusion about this? Burial's listening to dub. Burial's listening to dancehall and reggae.
When are we going to get that same level of care when it comes to technological advancements that come into this world? At the end of the day, we can't blame nobody but ourselves, because we also need to work together to make sure that we are getting to the places that we need to get to. Because no one's going to give us that s***. I've been told ‘no’ so many times, I've had people tell me, ‘Yo, you're doing too many things, it's too ambitious’. But it's like, I need to build an ecosystem. This does not exist where I'm from, so it takes more capital, it takes more time, it takes more energy. But it's more rewarding in the end, because we're going to create something that's way more important and efficient than what we had before.
MS: In the next year, and then five years, . What are your hopes and dreams for both yourself as an artist and HOLDERSLAND?
HM: I hope that we can at least be part of a few artists’ come up in a real serious way, involved in developing some of our best and brightest talent. Hope we can get some Solidity devs popping, some proper React devs. I'm hoping that we can create a very literate user base for a lot of these crypto products, because right now, everyone's just looking at crypto as trading. There's an entire world of people building applications and solutions for the world that you're going to live in the next five to ten years. So having people to understand this is not just stocks, this is a whole new way of transferring value that we need to pay attention to. HOLDERSLAND will be a big part of that. In the long term, we'll maybe have not a physical institution, but something that plays a big part in engaging with youth on that level. I already see it happening right now.
As far as myself, my own personal goals, I just want to make art. I just want to make the illest art that I can make. I really want to scramble people's brains up and have people look at West Indian artists in a different type of light. It's all part of the wider plan to establish something bigger than myself through myself, you know what I'm saying? I'm a vessel for all of that energy, and I'm trying to live that out at the highest level. I'm trying to get my pen better, trying to make my beats better, I'm trying to make my websites better, I'm trying to make everything just smooth like butter.